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Norman Borlaug (wikipedia.org)
95 points by wr1472 on Sept 8, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 85 comments



Ah, not Borlaug again.

Look, selective breeding and using fossil fuels for agriculture did increase output per unit of land. But the genetic specialization has weakened the previous genetic diversity of food.

Rendering our food supply more brittle, because we've created plants which need a very precise, artificial environment filled with external inputs.

Now, we've added GMOs, which have decreased genetic diversity even more. (Massive monoculture plantings all with the same genes, with even more artificial needs.)

The reason sexual reproduction succeeded was it creates as diverse of a genome as possible. By reducing that process, and substituting what we think of as "better", and then making it so 80% of our food supply shares the same genome, we're really setting ourselves up for a fall.

The mythology of Borlaug is that there are these scientists silently saving the world off in a corner, our own super hero nerds to look up to.

But, we're talking about massive systems here, things we really don't have a clue about. Can we outrun the adaptations of biology with our own GM technology? Can we keep using fossil fuels to outpace what we should be getting out of food?

And with genetic modification, we're always taking something away when we substitute something else. There is truly no free lunch there.

The point being, don't believe the mythology, and don't think this is a solved problem. Yes, we created a lot of cheap food using fossil fuels and brittle plant genomes, but what comes next?


Because what are the lives of hundreds of millions in the Third World, compared with the fears of entitled (sub)urbanites who have never produced their own food that we're twisting our connection with "Nature".


Interesting assumption by all to think both that I haven't experienced hunger, and that I haven't lived in the third world.

I've done both.

Also interesting is that it's immediately assumed I'm an elitist first world asshole who's never had any real problems, simply because of some ridiculous abstract "risk" I insist on bringing up.

These responses bring out the almost religious emotional investment of both sides of the argument.

You're suggesting that logic must be applied to save lives, and I'm saying be careful. Things aren't as cut and dried as presented by either side.


Why do you think that the response is addressing your person directly? It is saying that similar logic is employed by fairly powerful folks, and attacks that logic, not your own personal experience.


It shouldn't matter who express the idea. It should only matter if idea is right or not. Just because it was expressed by someone you don't like it is not less right (or vice versa).


People are hungry today. How to reconcile that with a long-term approach of husbanding genetic diversity?

Being careful is an 'elitist first-world' precisely because you aren't hungry today.


People are more interested in appeasing their "poor person abstraction guilt complex" than in actually looking for truth and pointing out potential problems. It's more important to ease one's guilt about the abstract notion of poor/hungry people than it is to actually help them.


And what about the lives of billions of future poor people if the system Borlaug built implodes? We're dependent on our new, higher production levels.

This is not a theoretical risk. For example, much production depends on irrigation from fossil aquifers. Or topsoil that is being rapidly depleted. Or non newewable fossil inputs.

We have been depleting capital to feed ourselves for the past several decades, and treating the capital we use as a renewable input.

The plight of the hungry is very real. But I worry we've built a house of cards that will cause worse pain when it collapses.


Ah, not this stupid argument again.

It's really easy to talk about decreasing genetic diversity when you have never known hunger. In India alone, the work of Norman Borlaug and his co-workers saved at least a hundred million lives. Before his intervention, large-scale famine and starvation in India was widely considered inevitable. Those are real people, whose lives you seem to weigh very little when you consider them against the still theoretical disadvantages of modern selective breeding.


I'm rather older than the average HNer, and it's hard to express how profound the worldview shift was when I read in 1983 that India was sending food to relieve the Ethiopian famine.

I grew up in the period when parents trying to get their children to finish a meal said "Think of the starving children in India." The meme was pervasive because it was true.


As you all pour your half eaten dinners into the bin...

I grew up in the same period for reference and the logic was slightly painful.


Except I don't, nor does any member of my nuclear family. We do our best to make sure it doesn't go to waste, one way or another.

An additional factor is that my parents were born during the Great Depression and experienced the privations of WWII on the home front. So they taught by example ... still do, in fact.


This is not theoretical. Ground water is contaminated due to pesticides. Small farmers are loosing there farms and income because of the economics of scale and competition from food industries. Farmers are getting dependent on foreign companies and policies. Organic food tastes much better. The number of known varieties is decreasing and with it change and healthy diversity. The soil is exhausted. Rain forest is cleared.


Millions upon Millions of people starved before this stuff existed, and you point out that "organic food tastes much better." Honestly, wtf. Are you trying to get beheaded in the next French Revolution?

The rest of your points are reasonable concerns, but need to be followed up by a very important question: are there alternatives that produce similar quantities of food for similar costs? Because until/unless there are, fixing the issues you raised means starving people to death.


Is there a reason you only pickup up one point?


Is there a reason you didn't read the rest of my comment?

>The rest of your points are reasonable concerns, but need to be followed up by a very important question: are there alternatives that produce similar quantities of food for similar costs? Because until/unless there are, fixing the issues you raised means starving people to death.


> fixing the issues you raised means starving people to death.

No not everywhere.


Save a million. Kill a billion.

Sounds harsh but saving those lives also makes the problem worse i.e. the population's dependency and consumption grows meaning that if (when) the theoretical disadvantages start to become a reality, it's going to be truly horrific.

Unpopular opinion: these people need to stop fucking if they are going hungry.


From the Wikipedia article:

Of environmental lobbyists he stated, "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".

Apparently, people like you existed even then.


He was a great man, one who got his hands dirty.


GMO does not force one to use monoculture farming techniques. In fact, there is work being done on using GMO to develop better polyculture species (like the three sisters).

The future of farming is polyculture, organic, and GMO.


Ah, but GMO means Large Corporations, and Large Corporations are Inherently Evil. And that, I believe, is where their chain of logic pretty much stops.


> "Rendering our food supply more brittle, because we've created plants which need a very precise, artificial environment filled with external inputs."

Well yes, the farmer takes on some energy costs from the plant, by e.g. providing nutrients and protection from pests. In exchange to these external inputs, the plant provides us more food.

The alternative would be more diverse, less efficient crops, and 1–2 billion less people.

You may sound nice when you talk against fertilizers and pesticides, but if you rephrase and say that those 1–2 billion people should have never existed, you'll sound much darker.


In a population overshoot scenario, the greater the population overshoot, the harder the crash.

So, dark or not, yes, peaking world population well below present levels would put us in a much better position. Allowing more people to live endangers the future of technological civilization, if not the species.

Sometimes a really long term vision is useful to contemplate: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-next-ten-...


Ah, not Borlaug again.

You're doing him a disservice. He's a valuable reference both for what he's done to address a pressing problem, and for what the consequences of those actions have been.

Borlaug himself addressed the issue of population and the needs to control it ultimately, quoted directly in the Wikipedia article:

Besides increasing the worldwide food supply, early in his career Borlaug stated that taking steps to decrease the rate of population growth will also be necessary to prevent food shortages. In his Nobel Lecture of 1970, Borlaug stated, "Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the 'Population Monster' ... If it continues to increase at the estimated present rate of two percent a year, the world population will reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2 additional people are added to the world population. The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3, and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and 2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The tick-tock of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?"

And yes, he later said he thought that 10 billion people could be fed (though that doesn't address other needs of those 10 billion and whether or not they can be adequately supported in other ways.

My own sense is that long-term sustainable population in a post-carbon world is likely on the order of 0.5 - 2 billion, though I'd allow for halving or doubling that depending on other factors.

Remember Eric Sevareid's Law: The chief source of problems is solutions.


Solve this problem by starting a company. Build a portable vertical garden of 100+ plants (herbs, vege's and fruits)

Install an Arduino, and a couple sensors, have this garden tweet when it's not getting enough water.

Start a gardening company in your town, managing these gardens for families.

Congratulations, you just hacked how to start an organic farm. And you didn't have to buy any land, and you're guaranteed revenue for your service (you're not selling a product).

You're now a "farmer" that earns ~$100 per hour per month on each family (e.g. $50/month at 15 minutes every 2 weeks). Now scale.


At the least, we buy more time to develop more sustainable technologies and/or implement humane population control to arrest and break world population growth, because:

- the possibility still exists that we can have these things and a soft landing,

- the alternative was millions of people starving to death in the short term - a natural course correction, but still a horrific one.

That being said, realistic (technical, political, etc) proposals for humanely arresting population growth are few and far between. China is pilloried for its (often monstrous) population control policy, but the Chinese population has stabilized. What sort of policy are we proposing for the countries with the greatest population growth, those with few economic resources, rather weak governments, and reluctant, justifiably suspicious populations? Look at global warming - how effective has the "you'll have to suffer slower economic growth, but it's for the sake of the entire world" argument been in the eyes of developing countries? Why would it be any different here?


First world countries have near or below replacement birth rates. So help the rest of the world develop to that level of wealth.


using fossil fuels

Can you explain what does fossil fuels have to do with this?

And with genetic modification, we're always taking something away when we substitute something else

What does this mean? Really. I don't understand this at all.

Rendering our food supply more brittle, because we've created plants which need a very precise, artificial environment filled with external inputs

Can you name examples of this "brittleness", how it is caused and how it has affected the food supply when compared to another way of farming (and what that other way exactly is)?

making it so 80% of our food supply shares the same genome, we're really setting ourselves up for a fall

Can you explain how having 80% of our food supply sharing the same genome is setting ourselves up for a fall?


Sure thing!

Here's a link from Oregon State giving a brief overview of the usage of fossil fuels in agriculture: http://people.oregonstate.edu/~muirp/fossfuel.htm

Basically, we use nitrogen fertilizers derived from oil, pesticides derived from oil, harvesters which run on oil, herbicides derived from oil, irrigation which runs on oil, and the transporting infrastructure to delivery all of that food.

As for the taking away something when we substitute something else:

Biological organisms have a general amount of energy their capable of taking in and processing. Whenever you substitute another gene "part" into an organism, you lose your net output of energy. It means that "cost" of energy is spent in producing that side effect, and not elsewhere. IE not in defense against other organisms.

As for the "brittleness" of genes:

The entire point of sexual reproduction is to make it so there is as much diversity in the genome as possible. This makes it so one bacteria or virus can't unlock the genome of an entire species and wipe it all out.

I think this also explains the last piece. We're exposed to a virus getting the code for a specific piece of that gene and wiping out all of that system very rapidly.


Being downvoted for not enough citations, I guess:

For the energy load incurred by adding to the gene sequence:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/07349750950...

Brittleness of genes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_diversity

Potato famine in general.


Basically, we use nitrogen fertilizers derived from oil, pesticides derived from oil, harvesters which run on oil, herbicides derived from oil, irrigation which runs on oil, and the transporting infrastructure to delivery all of that food.

My question was more about the connection to Borlaug. What does Borlaug have to do with fossil fuel usage. The link you gave does not make this connection at all, and neither does the Wikipedia article. How Borlaug could have fed these these people without using fossil fuels and how did he advocate fossil fuels specifically as a technology?

Whenever you substitute another gene "part" into an organism, you lose your net output of energy

Organisms get their energy from the sun through photosynthesis. It has nothing to do with their genes.

The entire point of sexual reproduction is to make it so there is as much diversity in the genome as possible. This makes it so one bacteria or virus can't unlock the genome of an entire species and wipe it all out.

I think this also explains the last piece. We're exposed to a virus getting the code for a specific piece of that gene and wiping out all of that system very rapidly.

Sounds like the case you are making is that there is a higher risk of losing the whole yield at once.

While that may be true, what you are describing is a risk. Considering that GMO plants make considerably more yield, the farmer has to weigh the risks and benefits. This is common to for all businesses. GMO yield would be more expensive than non-GMO yields if the risks were too high. Farmers aren't stupid.


And the fuel and energy use don't end with transportation. You've got food processing (canning, drying, milling, and other processing), refrigeration, and packaging as well. I suppose you could toss grocery store and restaurant operations into the mix as well.

And the real multiplier for inputs: raising livestock takes vast inputs. Even if you don't eat soy directly, if you're eating beef, pork, poultry, or dairy, you're eating food very likely raised in large part based on soy protein. (And just for the record: I'm an omnivore).


Oh, and meta note: that OSU page (apparently created using Adobe PageMill) uses graphics to generate bulleted lists.

fbog.


As a 1st world farm kid who regularly still 'helps' during fall and spring, this is what I have experienced. My parents don't run a ton of acres, but they definitely make a living off of it.

Fossil Fuels/Brittleness It 'used' to be everyone at least rotated crops every year (corn, soy, wheat, corn) to put nitrogen back in the soil in a more natural process. Now, the rotations are more like corn, corn, corn, soy, corn. Since the soybeans aren't there to put nitrogen back in the soil, farmers use literal tons of oil produced nitrogen. When gas prices are high, my dad's not complaining about the 300 gallons of diesel a day per tractor he's using. He's talking about the increase in nitrogen prices. The price increases have made it so that farmers used to be able to break even at about 2.50 a bushel for corn. Now its something like 4.50. That's a huge jump when you're now getting 200+ bushels per acre and in the 1990's 170 bushels was a great year.

Diversity A few years ago (can't quite remember) there was a huge scare of European corn borer destroying all of one type of corn. It was the crop equivalent of the bird flu scare. It turned out to not happen, but the possibility is still there. Now that we're less diverse one 'superbug' or bad weather year could take out everything.


> Now that we're less diverse one 'superbug' or bad weather year could take out everything.

This could also happen even if you were more diverse. Look at what happened to French wine grapes.


>Can you name examples of this "brittleness", how it is caused and how it has affected the food supply when compared to another way of farming

Not the parent but yes. Look at the history of banana cultivars. Up until the 1950s the most common variety of banana grown commercially was the 'Gros Michel'. Vast tracts of banana plantation of this single variety were wiped out by Panama disease which spread around the world. A different cultivar, the 'Cavendish' was found to be resistant to the strain of Panama disease that afflicted the Gros Michel. The transition was at great economic cost and it was fortuitous that a resistant variety of banana was discovered.

http://www.apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/Pages/Pana...

The first trades relied almost entirely on ‘Gros Michel’ (28,32). In many ways, ‘Gros Michel’ is an ideal export banana. It produces massive bunches of large, flavorful fruit that are so resistant to mechanical damage that they could be shipped intact. The downfall of ‘Gros Michel’ was its extreme susceptibility to Panama disease.

Panama disease was first reported in Australia, but became most important in the monocultures of ‘Gros Michel’ that were used by the trades in the Western Hemisphere. Panama was one of the first countries to experience major epidemics. It caused staggering losses in the trades before production areas converted to Cavendish. Between 1940 and 1960, 30,000 ha were lost in the Ulua Valley of Honduras, and in a decade complete losses were recorded in operations of 4,000 ha in Suriname and 6,000 ha in the Quepos area in Costa Rica. If one compiles figures up to 1960 and considers the substantial costs that were associated with plantation establishment, losses of approximately $400,000,000 can be attributed to Panama disease. Using a conservative conversion rate, this would be at least $2.3 billion in 2000 figures, and would be even greater if costs were included for unemployment, abandoned villages, unrealized income, and expenditures to maintain social stability in the affected regions.

I'm sure you can guess what happens next. A strain of Panama disease that affects the Cavendish has appeared:

http://www.apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/Pages/Pana...

The confidence that Panama disease would not affect the Cavendish clones was shattered in the early 1990s. New Cavendish plantations began to succumb throughout Southeast Asia, the home of banana. This represented the first time that Cavendish was affected in the tropics in the absence of predisposing factors.

The appearance of TR4 in Southeast Asia has changed this assessment. Once again the banana on which the export trades depend is threatened with destruction by Panama disease. Also affected are the important plantain cultivars that feed some 400 million people, as well as numerous cooking and dessert cultivars. In total, TR4 threatens more than 80% of the world’s banana production. Activities to monitor its spread and develop contingency plans for its arrival in other areas should be started as soon as possible.


The French wine industry in the 19th century grew many different cultivars of grapes. Yet it still fell victim to phylloxera. In the end, they had to switch to American rootstocks that came not just from different cultivars, but from different species of grapes.

This was in some ways more drastic of a change than the switch from Gros Michel bananas to Cavendish bananas. The bananas were two different cultivars of the same species.

When the phylloxera plague struck, the French were already growing dozens of different cultivars, in a variety of environments, from Champagne to Provence. But it didn't matter. The grapes all died.

Genetic diversity can provide resiliency if a crop disease happens to attack the genes that are different. If the disease is indifferent to those genes, then genetic diversity will not save your crop.


> But the genetic specialization has weakened the previous genetic diversity of food.

This is indeed true, but all crops we eat have lost diversity. Domestication implies selection on domestication traits, which means that there will be a drop in diversity. This is why we eat corn and not teosinte, large delicious tomatoes rather than tiny tomatoes, etc. We have selected on variability for certain traits to give us better crops.

> Rendering our food supply more brittle, because we've created plants which need a very precise, artificial environment filled with external inputs.

This is just farming. Agriculture by definition is changing landscapes by adding external plants, and tendering them. This has not made our food supply more brittle, but has allowed a degree of specialization that has allowed us to feed more mouths with less inputs.

> Now, we've added GMOs, which have decreased genetic diversity even more. (Massive monoculture plantings all with the same genes, with even more artificial needs.)

GMOs have nothing to do with diversity. You can breed varieties, crossing wild populations with domesticated ones, and then add in a transgene at the end. This doesn't undo the diversity you've added through wide crosses beforehand.

We grow monoculture crops because we need consistency for consumers. Look at apples: sure we could have apples that are all genetically different in an orchid. But traits like flowering time, color, taste, texture would be all different. Consumers would eat less apples because many are just gross, and this would lead to huge wastes in agriculture. There's a reason we do monoculture.

> The reason sexual reproduction succeeded was it creates as diverse of a genome as possible. By reducing that process, and substituting what we think of as "better", and then making it so 80% of our food supply shares the same genome, we're really setting ourselves up for a fall.

See above. But also, all organisms experience such risks. Even diverse ones. This is why extinction happens. Modern molecular breeding techniques greatly alleviates this because we can see which varieties confer resistance to a pathogen or pest, and then breed in those select traits. We maintain consistency in product but add borrow diversity from resistance loci.

Borlaug's success was very simple: no GMO, just simple breeding techniques. He bred for semi-dwarf traits, which allow most of a plant's energy to go towards creating grain rather than vegetative mass. How is this inefficient? Why would it be more optimal for us to dump fertilizer and use agriculture space and have it go towards vegetative mass rather than something that feeds people? I agree agriculture is not great for land, but our best option is to make it as efficient as possible.

I suggest you study breeding and agriculture if you wish to argue on these topics. These incorrect views spread very harmful misinformation around.


My point is that things aren't so cut and dry.

We're breeding out genetic diversity.

We're also substituting a more brittle ecology for the development of our food. We can both agree upon that.

My point is, let's not pretend that technology has solved the riddle of how to feed people, or that genetic modification solves the problem. There is a whole discussion to be had, beyond just "throw technology at it".

And as for the dig suggesting I study breeding and agriculture, I have a fair bit. I've created a genetically engineered organism, worked doing agriculture in the developing world, built water filtration systems in the developing world, done agriculture in the United States, grew up using herbicides and pesticides, saved my own seeds, and have a fairly diverse viewpoint. I understand that genetic engineering is just a technology, and the cat is already out of the bag.

Please don't bring up credentialing as a way to get around providing specific arguments with references.


You didn't really address any of my points, and you continue to make rather dubious claims.

> We're breeding out genetic diversity.

There's nothing magical about having a genetically diverse crop. Most mutations that have accumulated are mildly deleterious, especially when our goal is to make varieties for agriculture. Maize is a good example; there may be much diversity that allowed wild teosintes to grow in Mexico that we've removed when we grow it in Wisconsin. This is just selection, and natural selection removes diversity too. So since all crops are the product of selection, and selection removes diversity, of course we're breeding out diversity — that's our goal. But again, there's nothing bad about this. Breeders maintain huge germplasms that are full of diversity, and they leverage these all the time.

For example, modern wheat was very susceptible to Ug99, a particularly nasty stem rust. Breeders found resistance gene Sr35 in their broad germplasm in Triticum monococcum, and used a transformation to insert it in hexaploid wheat. How does this leave us worse off? Now vast amounts of wheat that would have been low-yielding due to rust or worse has been solved by technology. We can still have bread and pizza with the desirable milling and taste traits because we inserted the single gene, rather than having to spend years and years backcrossing (meanwhile huge amounts of crops, and their inputs are lost).

Borlaug proved that technology can be used to feed people. But additionally no plant biologist would argue that breeding is the only technology that matters in feeding people. Everything from agricultural market efficiencies to post-harvest storage needs to be improved, and bettering technology is the best way.


There's nothing magical about having a genetically diverse crop.

Except that there is. It means you can survive when environmental factors (predators, pathogens, change in food supply, change in population, etc.) change your assumptions. This often happens more quickly than you can respond, eg. the black death. If you think we're beyond that sort of thing, you're just plain wrong.[1]

We can still have bread and pizza with the desirable milling and taste traits because we inserted the single gene, rather than having to spend years and years backcrossing

Well, firstly you wouldn't have the disease problem on such a scale if you had less centralized farming / genetic monoculture. Second, desires aren't global. Third, your backcrossing line is dubious. Biology is good at survival, we don't need to tend to it ourselves. If we reach a state where we do, then gee golly: we've clearly buggered up hundreds of millions of years of success in a right jiffy!

no plant biologist would argue that breeding is the only technology that matters in feeding people. Everything from agricultural market efficiencies to post-harvest storage needs to be improved, and bettering technology is the best way.

I agree with your premise but not your conclusion. Growing suitable crops closer to where they are consumed, in greater variety, and removing external dependencies such as artificial fertilizer, unnatural water consumption for unsuitable crops, technology and energy for industrial farming, packaging and transport will also go a long way.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the reality is that actually helping people to get fed well and cheaply is a great way to make them consume less, reject large established business interests, and stop going to work. Therefore supporting policy is far from a priority in government.

[1] http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/pages/background-goals.htm


My point wasn't that genetic diversity isn't useful — if you see above, I give an example of how having a genetically diverse germplasm is quite useful for breeding. But having a field full of different crops is not useful. It would lower yields, be difficult to harvest (mechanical harvesters rely on uniformity), and consumers like uniform crops. It also doesn't make sense to take genetic diversity in a crop and plant it in a field because it's completely ignoring our ability to design local crops — ones that are more drought tolerant given a region's rainfall, or ones that could handle colder temperatures. If your field of genetically different crops are all planted together, half may die if there's a cold spell. Uniform genetics allow us to really understand what a single field is going to do, and this is why it's so common. It's also why there are vast field trials —sometimes decades long— for all crop varieties.

Take the wheat example I gave above. Even if you were to plant every variety of hexaploid wheat in a field, despite different flowering times, milling characteristics, best environments, etc. one rust would still kill them all. There is no resistance allele in this entire species of wheat. This is why researchers had to go find Sr35 in an ancient relative.

You could make the claim, well, we should be growing that ancient relative, but this is silly too — it would be risky given it hasn't undergone the same selection for agricultural hardiness as modern varieties.

As I said, there's nothing magical about having a field of diverse crops. A field's population will always be smaller, and encapsulate less diversity than that all of the world (and in other relatives). If your so called black death came along and killed all but a few plants, why would this help? There's still too little to feed or sell. This disease already decimated the population, and our best approach is to breed an entirely resistant population the next year — not throw in more diversity and hope for the best. We can intelligently leverage diversity in breeding, which is more optimal than just planting diverse fields.

> Well, firstly you wouldn't have the disease problem on such a scale if you had less centralized farming / genetic monoculture.

You may very well might. It's possible no plant in the population has resistance alleles and they might all die given a nasty pathogen. Pathogens killing all by certain plants with certain resistance alleles is just selection. Actually, if this number of plants with resistance is small, this natural process could lead to quite a genetic bottleneck and actual remove vast amounts diversity. These bottlenecks occur in the wild, and so does extinction (if say, no individual had resistance).

> Third, your backcrossing line is dubious. Biology is good at survival, we don't need to tend to it ourselves. If we reach a state where we do, then gee golly: we've clearly buggered up hundreds of millions of years of success in a right jiffy!

Sure, but then go eat teosinte rather than maize. I think you're forgetting that we domesticated varieties to survive with our help, and to feed us. Through breeding we can grow maize in Wisconsin rather than Mexico. If backcrossing is dubious to you, you should stop eating all crops because I guarantee all have had parents that have been extensively backcrossed.

> I agree with your premise but not your conclusion. Growing suitable crops closer to where they are consumed, in greater variety, and removing external dependencies such as artificial fertilizer, unnatural water consumption for unsuitable crops, technology and energy for industrial farming, packaging and transport will also go a long way.

Please if you have some magic way to do this and feed met the world's food demands, become a plant scientist! But I think you will find that it's just not this easy.


having a field full of different crops is not useful.

Really, or is that just an unquestioned "industrialized farming is the progress because volume produced (for a short time, wholly unsustainably, with loads of hidden overheads) is big!" perspective? You see, biological systems are far more complex than a few years of crop output, and such a simplistic take is clearly missing the bigger picture.

A field full of different crops is much more useful than a field of one crop because (A) it requires less maintenance (B) it can feed you more fully from a dietary perspective (C) it encourages a proper ecosystem to develop (insects, birds, etc.) (D) it is far more likely to prove a sustainable user of soil nutrients (E) with a higher density of vegetation and multiple layers of canopy, it will retain and therefore use less water, better surviving fluctuations in precipitation.

It would lower yields,

I believe evidence is to the contrary, but do not have the time to research just to convince you. If you are interested, please start by reading the Japanese farmer/microbiologist's book The One Straw Revolution I posted earlier in this discussion.

...be difficult to harvest...

If you haven't had to do much maintenance on the crops at all (weeding, watering, pesticides since a healthier ecosystem will prevent plagues of most pests, fertilizing, etc.) then a little more harvesting time is no issue.

(mechanical harvesters rely on uniformity)

We could always harvest ourselves on smaller scale farms, and anyway we'll surely make better machines. It's hard, but not that hard.

...and consumers like uniform crops.

Debatable. Organic Farmer's market, anyone?

It also doesn't make sense to take genetic diversity in a crop and plant it in a field because it's completely ignoring our ability to design local crops — ones that are more drought tolerant given a region's rainfall, or ones that could handle colder temperatures.

Nature does this automatically.

If your field of genetically different crops are all planted together, half may die if there's a cold spell.

Sure. But if you then have a virus that infects cold-spell-resistant-genotype in the same year, at least you have 50% of your crops instead of none. And your overall time input was close to zero. And your seeds are real, fertile ones, that you get every year for free, giving you true food security.

Uniform genetics allow us to really understand what a single field is going to do, and this is why it's so common. It's also why there are vast field trials —sometimes decades long— for all crop varieties.

We only have some idea. We can't predict much of the future, such as emergent pathogens or significant climactic variation.

Take the wheat example I gave above. Even if you were to plant every variety of hexaploid wheat in a field, despite different flowering times, milling characteristics, best environments, etc. one rust would still kill them all.

If you have diverse crops planted, the likelihood that one rust will spread to all physically separated groups of wheat is far lower. In addition, even if they all die, you still have food, and there will often be seeds that have survived and will return in the next year... Oh wait! That only holds true for real seeds, not the GM sterilized-for-the-profit-of-the-few industrial ones.

There is no resistance allele in this entire species of wheat. This is why researchers had to go find Sr35 in an ancient relative.

Aha! So here we have an example of a plant that we heavily domesticated, destroying genetic diversity and creating gross vulnerability to a single pathogen. That illustrates my diversity point well.

You could make the claim, well, we should be growing that ancient relative, but this is silly too — it would be risky given it hasn't undergone the same selection for agricultural hardiness as modern varieties.

See, here's the thing. We don't know the future: so who are we to select? Nature does all this by itself. It's a bit silly to waste our time trying to out-nature nature, when we could adopt a different philosophy and significantly increase our food security in measurable ways: maintaining long term genetic diversity, and ensuring resistance of annual output to single pathogens or other unexpected environmental factors.

As I said, there's nothing magical about having a field of diverse crops.

But there is. By being closer to nature, it survives and thrives on its own with minimal effort.

A field's population will always be smaller,

False.

... and encapsulate less diversity than that all of the world (and in other relatives).

Sure, but that's a pointless observation. In any event, it will encapsulate a subset of diversity for each plant that evolves to suit to local conditions, and that is more resistant to crop failures than a single genotype.

If your so called black death came along and killed all but a few plants, why would this help?

Because you have multiple crops, so the reduction in one is less significant, and because your local genotype is better suited to other aspects of the environment and most challenges to plants aren't Tom Clancy killer viruses.

There's still too little to feed or sell.

Really, you should read about alley cropping, then read The One Straw Revolution, then watch some videos of permaculture gardens. You'd be surprised just how wrong you are about output from industrial agricultural monocultures versus diverse crop interplanting.

This disease already decimated the population, and our best approach is to breed an entirely resistant population the next year — not throw in more diversity and hope for the best.

I would say our best hope is not to do anything, and to allow the more resistant or miraculously preserved subset to return in its own time, lending its former space to other species as nature sees fit.

We can intelligently leverage diversity in breeding, which is more optimal than just planting diverse fields.

More optimal .. for what set of conditions? Not a sustainable or self-sufficient food security goal for most of the human world. Though, perhaps more optimal for profits for industrial farming companies who have little interest in actually looking after the land, water tables, ecosystem or community past the bare minimum necessary to ensure continued profits.

> Third, your backcrossing line is dubious. Biology is good at survival, we don't need to tend to it ourselves. If we reach a state where we do, then gee golly: we've clearly buggered up hundreds of millions of years of success in a right jiffy!

Sure, but then go eat teosinte rather than maize. I think you're forgetting that we domesticated varieties to survive with our help, and to feed us. Through breeding we can grow maize in Wisconsin rather than Mexico. If backcrossing is dubious to you, you should stop eating all crops because I guarantee all have had parents that have been extensively backcrossed.

Historically speaking, large scale agriculture was heavily linked to the emergence of a state, wielding a monopoly of force to extract corvee labour, military service and taxation from a population. Perhaps it's time to put that history to rest and consider less uniform crops, more seasonal diets, and a swing back toward more decentralized production of a greater variety of foods.

Please if you have some magic way to do this and feed met the world's food demands, become a plant scientist! But I think you will find that it's just not this easy.

Actually I'm going right for the throat: the financial system. Once that's done I'll be happy to retire to farming!


We are soon past the need for genetic diversity. That is just a word for 'random crap we found when civilization began'. We're way past that, we're designing our ecosystems continent by continent. We're designing our food. We've increased yields 100-fold over the pitiful weedy strains found in nature.

Its just futile to suggest returning to some idyllic imaginary past where nature provided for us. ITs never done that. Its tried to kill us any way it can for any reason or no reason. If a plant could increase available nutrition to its seed by making it poisonous to humans, killing us and growing from our corpses, it would happen in a blink.

We've entered an age of engineered food (and engineered everything else too). Its up to us now, however it turns out.


We are soon past the need for genetic diversity. That is just a word for 'random crap we found when civilization began'. We're way past that

I'm not going to comment on the biology/GM side specifically, but there are many scenarios in history where man thought he had dominated nature and got his ass handed to him. Often, entire civilizations descended in to chaos and completely disappeared. Agricultural examples would be the Maya, Angkor, etc. Others are hanging on dimly, like Haiti. Nuclear catastrophes would be another category. Some say the significant destruction of recent earthquakes in western China result from the mega-dam project. Then there's climate change.

You have to zoom out sometimes to see these things: don't blindly put faith in technology, it's not the answer to everything. Sometimes, re-orienting your thinking to be closer to the natural order of things is faster and more effective than trying to out-engineer reality. Biology is no exception.


Now, lets not compare 18th century science with what we have today. Now we understand the systems approach, the nature of life and DNA, we actually construct new plants and creatures routinely, and on and on.

To say "ancient man was arrogant; modern man is arrogant; we'll make the same mistakes" is silly.


lets not compare 18th century science with what we have today

My point precisely! I was comparing the human situation, and explaining the difference in philosophy. You on the other hand seem to be keen to expound the wonders of today's technology. My point is that it's not that great, even if it's better than the 18th century, and nature still rules over us with little remorse. Becoming arrogant again about our doings, we shall yet again be put in our place ... history makes this clear. But with what damage to millions of years of biology?


History makes that clear? No, history's lessons are largely moot in this brave new world. If we are bitten, it will be by entirely different things, and probably by human foibles. Like FUD about GMO etc. Not logical, but we will have to deal with it.


If it is not sustainable, this saving of a billion lives might have come at the expense of killing several billions of future lives.


Meanwhile, economic development leads to dropping birth rates. The entire first world is below replacement birth rate. So it's not a Malthusian catastrophe, it's just a question of increasing yields and developing the rest of the world into a higher standard of living before we run out of runway.


Do you know why ecvonomic development leads to dropping birth rates? Is thast really a law of nature? And what if economic development doesdn-'t keep up?


Whenever I lose faith in the naive goodness of humans, I look up Norman Borlaug again. The sacrifices that man has made for the greater good might look trivial in the books of history but it saved a billion people from certain starvation. Mexico, India and Pakistan would have fallen to anarchy long ago if not for him. I agree corporations like Monsanto took his line of work to evil proportions, but I am grateful that the first hands to wield the weapon of GM crops were of Norman Borlaug. His legacy will never be forgotten and will always be a guiding light to states and statesmen for centuries to come.


I don't want anyone to starve, but lets not go overboard on the hero worshiping.

Increasing carry capacity of the land can "save" people in the moment, but once the population catches up to the new carrying capacity we run into the same problems again unless something has changed in the meantime. Except that all the problems are worse because the new carrying capacity is

* more brittle (as other commenters) have already pointed out

* borrowed from unsustainable approaches such as converting fossil fuels to fertilizer

Arguably many of the countries that implemented these approaches have been able to slow populations growth, possibly with the help of temporary food security from these approaches.

I am just hoping for more intelligent conversation on the issue that helps people realize the true heros are those implementing sustainable technologies.


The headline seems to be invented from whole cloth. Wikipedia doesn't have propagandistic headlines.


Yeah, if you do a search for "Borlaug saved a billion" you'll find a lot of editorials with that title. There is a documentary too on YT. He is lionized for his contributions to agriculture in the developing world. I don't know the source of this sentiment, but it may well be deserved.

http://yellowmagpie.com/norman-borlaug-about/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1213295/Norma...


The first paragraph of the article notes that he is often known as "The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives", and gives a citation.


If you are dying of hunger would you eat a Snickers bar? How about if you had to survive for a week on only Skittles? Would you die, leaving a note that says that you refuse to eat processed food?

Is average life expectancy longer or shorter as a result of his work? Is quality of life better or worse?


I hate all these "saved people" bits. Every person ever still dies. Nobody gets "saved" from death, we get prolonged life or happier / healthier life. We could talk about reduced suffering. That stuff matters but just be accurate. There's no billion people saved, there's (arguably) billion people suffering less. Which isn't belittling anything.


This post is a thinly veiled argument for GMOs and large scale agribusiness. Did it save billions? Obviously. Is it free from criticism because of that? Not a chance.


But GMO and agribusiness also gets a lot of flak it doesn't deserve, based on faulty argumentation and outright lies.


I agree 100%. I fight that daily. My brother is staunchly against genetics manipulation and agribusiness in general. I'm just for using science and having some peer oversight myself :D


Although this might seem great on paper, he just created more intractable problems for future generations to have to deal with. Instead of focusing on the quantity of life, we should focus on the quality. Educate people instead of helping them make more children that will lead sad lives.


So, he is to blame for overpopulation? Thanks very much!


Yes, he impregnated every woman who wasn't already pregnant.



You are really believing that a man who supports GMOs and the increase of the consumption of wheat cereals saved a billion?

We are in an era where people are trying to avoid GMO products and also trying a "gluten-free" diet because of the health damage of those 2 things.


..yes?

For people dying from famine, the hipster nutrition trends are not on the radar.


Well, mankind didn't eat wheat for around a million years. Then after eating wheat for around 10,000 years we've only been eating Frankenwheat during the last century.

So the "hipster fad" is actually the eating of wheat. It's not a natural food for mankind to be consuming.


"Natural" food is not necessarily good. "Unnatural" food is not necessarily bad.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_nature


What species are you including in mankind? Cause homo sapiens (sapiens) haven't been around nearly that long...


Well, mankind didn't use medicine for around a million years. Then after using herbal medicines for around 10,000 years, we've only been using antibiotics during the last century. So the "hipster fad" is actually the using of medicine. It's not a natural thing for mankind to be doing.

Well, mankind practiced almost universal cannibalism for around a million years [note: this is true]. Then after restricting cannibalism to certain tribes and certain occasions for around 10,000 years, we've only ceased cannibalism entirely during the last century. So the "hipster fad" is actually the lack of cannibalism. It's not a natural thing for mankind to not be consuming the brains of its vanquished enemies.

Wash, rinse, and repeat.


Gluten causes absolutely no health damage for 99%-99.5% of the population. If you are trying to avoid it without being diagnosed as a celiac, you are an idiot, as it is rather healthy unless your immune system has an adverse reaction to it.


I'd like to know from what evidence you can state this so confidently. We live in a world where it is well understood that our understanding of human health and what substances are good / bad is not well understood. That's without saying anything in regards to how nutrition relates to how the body is being used, which complicates the matter considerably. How incredibly arrogant.

And why is it "rather" healthy? I thought it causes "absolutely no health damage" for 6.9 of the 7 billion people out there?


Well, let's put it this way. It is in no way any less healthy than anything else you eat. Gluten is a mixture of proteins that are all useful to the body, and while you can get those proteins from other sources, none are as cheap and plentiful as wheat.

The beginning of agriculture caused an overall loss in lifespans, but in different agricultural societies the reduction was inversely correlated with primary crop protein content. If you restrict yourself to grass crops, high-gluten wheat is one of the most healthy things you can eat. (Only surpassed by properly cooked quinoa, because it has even more proteins than wheat.)

> And why is it "rather" healthy?

What is this, the fifth grade? I in no way implied any downside to gluten (to non-celiac people).

> I thought it causes "absolutely no health damage" for 6.9 of the 7 billion people out there?

And that would be correct.


It's tempting to slice the reality of biology into over-simplistic models, but it's better to realize we have a ways to go. My intent was to point out that much to our chagrin, there is no set of food in which its members are "in no way any less healthy than anything else". What goes in this set and why are you so confident that they can be equated? Just trot out the line "mixtures of protein are all useful to the body"? Biology has only relatively recently established that not all proteins are created equal when held against the metabolic capabilities of a human. That even the context of those proteins matter. The field is only now experiencing an explosion in the ability to make truly meaningful models.

I encourage you to look into the fields of life-extension to reinforce the fact that our bodies and ecologies like them are in no way perfect. There is currently no food that causes absolutely zero health damage. I only mentioned your use of rather (i.e. "to a certain degree") because it seemed funny to then in the same breath claim an absolute---that there is no degree to even consider.

Where gluten lies in all of us this is up for debate because meaningful evidence interpreted in a dependable framework has yet to happen, as much as you'd like to think it's an utterly settled matter.


A few related skeptoid episodes, with a few excerpts:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4239 "Are gluten free diets really good for your general wellness?"

Gluten free diets actually are necessary for some people, and advisable for others. [...] Yet those whose business is the sale of gluten free products would often have us believe that many more of us should buy them. [...] So think of gluten sensitivities in the same way you'd think of bee stings or peanut allergies: of great and very real concern to a small number of people, of some concern for a few more, and of no concern to the rest of us. Don't let anyone tell you that gluten is harming you in some way that's so far not supported by any science, or that you should avoid it for the purpose of general wellness. For most of us, gluten is our friend; but never forget that it is also, like many compounds, definitely harmful to some.

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4112 "Are GMO crops dangerous, or a boon to mankind?"

Nature's method of genetically hybridizing plants is cross pollination, and for most of human history, this is how farmers and scientists have created new and improved species of crops. [...] When it comes to food crops, the idea is to take the strengths of one plant strain, such as an immunity to a certain disease or a hardiness to certain adverse conditions, and transfer that strength to another plant strain that needs it. [...] and by 1962, a new strain of rice called IR8 was feeding people all over the world. IR8 was the first really big modified crop to make a real impact on world hunger.


1) So, the vast difference between a modern hybrid high-gluten version of wheat and the grain crops human's have adapted to is dismissed with an uncited "gluten is our friend".

2) Er, no, the question was about genetic modification, which is not the same as hybridization.

Interesting how many people, who quite clearly know nothing about what they're writing, revel in the supposed scientific credibility the word "skeptic" gives them.

This kind of drivel gives skeptics a bad name, making them look as ignorant as the unquestioning who blindly accept the opposite story.


> So, the vast difference between a modern hybrid high-gluten version

Modern wheat is not high gluten. It's actually probably lower gluten than what our ancestors had.

They even invented https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chorleywood_bread_process in order to manage to work with the low gluten wheats that are common.


> the question was about genetic modification, which is not the same as hybridization.

Yes, it is, at least until you define precisely what kinds of genetic modification you're talking about, and we can get down to the nuts-and-bolts instead of generalities.


Borlaug won his Nobel based on selective breeding of crops. Do you really expect Borlaug to have known in the sixties what you know today about wheat / gluten? Gluten intolerance is a nice health problem to have for people who were previously starving.


I don't know about USA but in Russia people who avoid GMO are the older, perennialy scared of life, intolerant and homophobic demography who vote for Putin or who ever he brings forth.

I mean, why would you do that if you actually took biology classes?


The only people who are avoiding GMOs because of "health damage" are hipsters like yourself without an ounce of scientific knowledge.


Check out Amanda Maxham's GMOMonday. She writes about advances and setbacks in GMOs on a weekly basis with a level of clarity and flair I have not been able to find anywhere else:

http://blog.aynrandcenter.org/author/amaxham/


I was going to make a joke post about how he was really killing all those people with gluten but you beat me to it. Well done.




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